Wednesday, May 18, 2022

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Planning board approves request that would allow bar to remain in business

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Burlington’s planning and zoning commission has endorsed a rezoning request that would allow a private bar along Industry Drive to keep the drinks flowing despite an apparent snag in its current zoning designation.

This proposal, which received the commission’s unanimous blessing last week, would effectively reinstate the legal status of this establishment at 1453 Industry Drive, which had originally received the city’s permission to operate as a “private club” in 2004.

This 16-year-old watering hole, which is presently dubbed Lucky’s Saloon, had originally been authorized under the city’s old zoning procedures, which allowed property owners to file “conditional” zoning requests for particular uses that weren’t otherwise permitted within their broader zoning districts. In this instance, the property owner requested a conditional form of light industrial zoning that restricted the property’s use to a “private club and/or lodge” as well as other uses permitted in a planned industrial district – excluding adult cabarets and others of a similarly sexually explicit nature.

This business would go on to operate for over a decade and a half under a variety of names – with the most recent appellation being “Lucky’s Saloon.” But Lucky’s good fortune apparently ended earlier this year when a new proprietor took over the business and applied for a liquor license from North Carolina’s Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) Commission. This seemingly routine application ultimately never made it past Burlington’s planning department – a fact that the bar’s landlord Ernie Koury was at some loss to explain to the city’s planning commission last Monday.

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“We’ve just signed a new lease about six months ago with the current tenant,” Koury recalled during a “virtual,” or online, meeting that evening. “The current tenant tried to renew their liquor license. That’s when we came into the issue with zoning…I don’t know what the problem is, but we hope you can work with us.”

The precise source of this problem isn’t really elucidated by the 58 pages of information that the city’s planning staff presented to the commission’s members ahead of their meeting last Monday. These background materials nevertheless indicate that the city’s current planning staff declined to sign off on the bar’s application for a liquor license – apparently based on their surmise that the sale of alcohol wasn’t among the permitted uses in the terms of the property’s conditional zoning.

This staff-level inference doesn’t quite square with the property’s well-documented record of alcohol sales – as confirmed by other background materials that trace the site’s liquor licenses all the way back to 2011. There’s also some indication that city officials were well aware that there’d be alcohol sales on the premises when the approved the conditional zoning in 2004. According to the minutes of a planning commission meeting from November of 2004, which were included in the background information presented to the planning commission last week, a representative of Ernie Koury confirmed that an application would be filed with the Alcohol Beverage Control Commission in response to an inquiry raised by then-planning commission member Gordon Millspaugh.

During last Monday’s meeting, Koury assured the planning commission current lineup that the business at 1453 has consistently operated as a private, members-only bar for well over a decade without raising an eyebrow from anyone in Burlington’s planning department. The city’s planning staff apparently voiced no objections to any of the establishment’s applications to the ABC Commission, the latest of which was approved in March of 2019.

The approval of Lucky’s most recent liquor license preceded some significant personnel changes in Burlington’s planning department, whose current staff includes few, if any, members who were with the department three years ago. It appears that, in the estimation of the department’s current staff, Lucky’s had simply bucked the odds when it managed to keep plying a trade that they deemed to lie outside the scope of its conditional zoning.

This apparent discrepancy in allowable and actual use was pointed out to the planning commission last Monday by Burlington’s planning manager Conrad Olmedo.

“The current use on the property is aligned with a bar, cocktail lounge-type of use,” he went on to tell the commission’s members. “That use was not specified in the original conditional zoning designation.”

Olmedo nevertheless added that he and his colleagues have no objection to a zoning change that would permit the bartends at Lucky’s to dispense potent potables along with whatever else may be on the menu. He noted that, to this end, the city’s planning staff had encouraged Koury to apply for a conventional form of light industrial zoning that would allow alcohol sales to take place on the premises with no need for a special permit or variance at the municipal level.

The planning commission, for its part, seemed somewhat hung up on the distinction between a private, members-only bar and an establishment that caters to the general public. Koury tried to assure the group’s members that this difference isn’t really germane to the zoning issue at hand.

“Either way,” he added, “there will be people there drinking alcohol on motorcycles.”
In the end, the commission’s members saw no need to impede the operations of a bar, whether public or private. They ultimately voted 7-to-0 to recommend the rezoning request to Burlington’s city council, which will render a final decision on the request at a forthcoming meeting.

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